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UAMS study examines employment barriers among rural women cancer patients

UAMS researchers looked at some of the most common employment-related problems facing rural women undergoing cancer treatment.

A new study from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences finds women in rural communities suffering from cancer often face barriers to employment.

Researchers based the study on interviews with 33 women from rural communities who had been diagnosed with cancer in the past, finding those with full-time jobs were more likely to retain their employment through treatment.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Emily Hallgren, says that’s in large part because of the benefits that often come with full-time employment like paid time off and flexible work arrangements. She says women with more temporary, informal jobs were more likely to experience discrimination in their current jobs, as well as from prospective employers.

“And this could really be exacerbated by the fact that they were rural residents, because this is a small town, maybe a lot of people know they had cancer, and a couple even said ‘You know, people know I had cancer and I think that’s stopped me from being able to get a new job,” Hallgren said.

Women interviewed for the study reported that, while some had paid sick time, it generally wasn’t enough for their treatment and recovery. Some women also reported the side effects of their cancer treatment grew worse due to a lack of workplace accommodations.

Hallgren, a researcher with the UAMS Office of Community Health and Research, says policymakers should consider guaranteeing paid time off to all workers to ensure nobody falls through the cracks.

“Especially just thinking about everything we’ve lived through with the COVID-19 pandemic, I think it’s clearer than ever that no matter the type of work you do, all workers should be entitled to paid time off when they have medical needs,” Hallgren said.

Hallgren says the women interviewed for her study often had less secure, temporary jobs that did not guarantee paid time off for treatments. She says, aside from systemic shifts, changes to workplace policy can also happen on an individual level.

“They might be a little bit harder to implement through laws and policies, but I think at the workplace level employers can think about ‘Can we implement or can we continue with more flexible work arrangements?’ So that perhaps if somebody is going through an illness, they would have that flexibility in their schedule and their work location to be able to accommodate those needs.”

Both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family Medical Leave Act provide protections for employees who are diagnosed with illnesses like cancer, though workers at temporary or informal jobs, as well as those at many small businesses, are not covered by the federal laws. The study is published in the Journal of Cancer Survivorship.

Daniel Breen is News Director for Little Rock Public Radio.